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'I come down and smash it out': How a boxing gym is giving marginalised young people a fighting chance

Funding for youth work has been slashed, despite evidence it can set young people up for life. A Bristol gym is fighting on regardless

Young male teenagr Abdul, an alumni of Empire Fighting Chance, a boxing gym in Bristol

Abdul is one of many teens who found their place in the world after being referred to Empire Fighting Chance. Image: Nick Dolding

Before joining the boxing gym that helped her turn her life around, 19-year-old Kierah remembers that “school was the worst time of my life”. 

Empire Fighting Chance is a Bristol-based boxing gym and youth charity. Like Kierah, many of the teens attending are struggling to find their place in the world. Some face exclusion from school, others have difficult home lives or mental health issues that slip through the cracks of an ever-crumbling NHS.

Facing bullying and insurmountable pressures at school, Kierah’s attendance dropped and she started getting into trouble for her behaviour. That’s when her school referred her to Empire.

“I wasn’t that keen to come,” she says, “I don’t think I spoke for the whole of the first one-to-one. Not a word. Or if I did, it would have been attitude. I used to be the kind of person who closed up until I knew you. I’m not like that anymore.”

Empire Fighting Chance is a Bristol boxing gym fighting against the impact of inequality on young people’s lives
Kierah was referred to Empire Fighting Chance when she started getting into bad behaviour. It gave her a newfound belief in herself. Image: Nick Dolding

Unlike regular talk therapy or mentoring, which can sometimes make young people feel like they’re under the microscope, Empire’s approach is to pair mentorship with sports training. This helps kids see that the power they have to achieve goals inside the gym can also transfer to outside of the boxing ring. Boxing also provides an emotional release.

“It was good because I was an angry kid, I’d just come down and smash it out,” Kierah remembers, “I didn’t have to speak. No one pushed me to speak but when I felt more comfortable I started speaking.” 

Having finished an apprenticeship programme at Empire, Kierah found full-time employment, a testament to how youth work can set people up for life, a fact that there’s mounting evidence to support. 

Despite this, youth work has seen its funding slashed over the last decade. The resulting lack of youth centres has been linked to youth violence – an issue that has impacted the community in Easton where Empire is based, terrifying parents. 

Courtney Young, one of the coaches at Empire, has seen the impact that youth centre closures in Bristol have had:

“I think a lot of the young people feel lost,” he says, “they don’t have places to go, so they hang out on the street where they don’t feel safe.”

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Growing up in parts of the city where police presence is a daily reality and seeing violence is common can have extremely negative impacts on a young person. That’s how Abdul, another Empire alumni who’s now 18, remembers his childhood: “When it first starts you think ‘this ain’t right’. But it becomes normal.”

By his teen years, Abdul found himself moving from school to school, continually excluded for unruly behaviour.

“I was fighting, getting into unnecessary arguments with students and teachers. Just not being the most well behaved student. I think I was trying to show people don’t get on the wrong side of me. I feel like I was heavily influenced by older people who were at my school as well, seeing them get into fights,” Abdul remembers. 

Soon, Abdul found himself being threatened with a transfer to a pupil referral unit – a practice that campaigners have criticised as criminalising children and disproportionately targeting Black boys.

“[It was] described to me as a prison, a school prison. You’ve got metal bars on the windows, the doors are locked, in the classroom the seats and tables are bolted into the floor,” Abdul says, explaining that that’s when he decided he needed to find another path.

Soon Adbul enrolled in a 20-week programme at Empire and gained a positive role model in Courtney: “I would see him on a weekly basis. He’d teach me how to box, or we’d be on the basketball court for an hour. We’d talk through how things had been in the previous week since I’d seen him. If I was misbehaving, he’d get on my case about it.” 

Courtney smiles when asked about “getting on someone’s case” and explains that a firm but fair approach to calling out misbehaviour is effective because coaches first take the time to build up a trusting relationship with the kids.  

“I think the reason it works is because one of our massive ethos in the gym is that you’re not judged,” Courtney says, “so when you walk through those doors, whatever it says on the referral form, that doesn’t define you.”

The friendly, non-judgemental space helped Abdul learn new ways of socialising, something that’s followed him to his new college where he’s studying sports coaching and development.

“[Empire was] a good place to talk to people because everyone in there is mad friendly, the people who work there, the people who come to train, even the ladies on reception. If you’ve not spoken to someone before, you could just start a boxing chat with them. No one’s going to make fun of you or anything,” Abdul says. 

Abdul moved from school to school as a teenager, continually expelled for bad behaviour. Image: Nick Dolding

Ninteeen-year-old Jennifer has completed two of Empire’s programmes and now works as a coach there. When she joined the gym, her self-confidence and mental health had been hard hit by the pandemic, during which she found herself spending more and more time on social media.

“That’s when I really thought, ‘Yeah, social media is just my reality now.’ I was just on my phone all the time,” she remembers, adding that “social media is not really real life”. 

Having the ability to attend the gym, share a space with other young people and make friends offline was pivotal to Jennifer’s ability to grow in confidence and counteract some of the pressures of being online. 

Now, through her full-time role at the gym supporting other young people, Jennifer’s able to pass on some of that confidence to others: 

“[It’s great] seeing my young people reach their potential,” she says. Jennifer is particularly pleased when she sees the kids she coaches dedicating themselves to something positive:

“These two boys, it was Easter holidays and they were just at the gym the whole day. They did not leave the gym. And that kind of shows – at least they’re not out on the streets,” she says. 

The impact of the Empire’s coaching is often visible throughout a child’s life, from helping out more at home to getting up on time to go to school and participating more in lessons.

“When you see that change in a young person who you’ve been working with, it really nails down why we’re here and why youth organisations like ours are so important,” says Courtney. 

He continues: “Sometimes you’ll see some young people – shoulders up, tensed, hood up and not wanting to interact with anybody really. And then after a few weeks, they’ll come in – their shoulders down, a pulled back chest and walking around with that confidence.”

It’s this new found belief in themselves that helps young people broaden their horizons and build up their aspirations. This, ultimately, is at the core of what Empire has set out to achieve. And, at least for some, it seems to be working.

“I want to get a travel visa and go and work in Australia, coaching,” Kierah says of her future dreams, “It should be a good experience. I’ll take my chances with the alligators and the spiders.”

Visit empirefightingchance.org for more information.

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